By Rwiti Bhattacharya, UG'23
For years now, films have been turning modern metropolises into urban fantasylands where all dreams come true. Amidst these concrete jungles, characters seek out an identity and come into their own. But to view this evolution in isolation would be an oversimplification. Consider this, the all too familiar portrait of a city—an iconic bridge over the holy waters of the Ganga, the busy jostling of people within lanes so narrow that they cannot help but merge into each other ; the proverbial yellow taxi and the squeals of rails or trams on their tracks ; the incessant haggling in the middle of a market, the booming voice of politicians across speakers. This is Kolkata—a city arrested in time by celluloid, yet imparting timelessness to its protagonists. Here’s taking a look at the many genres she has transcended at different stages of her development and the peculiarities which make her a filmmaker’s favourite.
One of the first few films that recognised the inherent old-world charm of Kolkata, and capitalised on it back in 2002, was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus - Devdas. In this film adaptation of Saratchandra Chatterjee’s novella, the self-destructive, alcoholic, loser-hero hybrid isn’t the only protagonist, the post-colonial background in which his story unravels also features centrally. There are Victorian-style buildings, wealthy, overflowing zamindari households, and even an elaborate depiction of durga puja replete with women clad in red and white sarees. These tick off all the boxes in the ‘romanticize Kolkata using long-standing cultural symbols’ repertoire. And there have been many films since, which have done the same.
Parineeta (2005) is set at the turn of the 20th Century, in the thick of the Bengal Renaissance. Shekhar, the protagonist, is thus the torchbearer of all ideas that came out of this movement. He aptly displays the qualities required of his breed - the ‘bhadralok’ - high status in the class hierarchy, radical politics, general wokeness and an exquisite appreciation for true culture, ranging from Tagore to Elvis. His identity is more British than it is Bengali—also a point of pride for people like him at the time. The English-cut window lattices with stained glass in his mansion, his vintage car collection and the period costumes are all attempts at imitating the richness of Kolkata, but they end up highlighting only the overstated opulence of Bollywood.
In stark contrast, we have Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012) which with its romantic morbidness, for me, marks a break from the formerly stereotypical, idyllic image. It follows the story of Vidya Bagchi as she meanders across obscure North-Kolkata neighbourhoods in search of her missing husband, a quest that unravels in the relatively unexplored, dark and dangerous nooks and corners of the city where death can spring upon her at any moment. Such a grim portrayal helps to move it beyond convenient clichés.
However, this difficulty in striking the right balance between the old and the new, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the moral and the decadent - is the result of a colonial hangover. A persevering tendency to look at the city and see ‘Calcutta’, see ‘Victoria’ Memorial, European Architecture, ‘Shakespeare’ Sarani and ‘Bentinck’ Street and the remains of a history that doesn’t do justice to its present. Kolkata, is very much alive and its heartbeat is captured in its art, culture, and heritage. So it is almost a moral obligation for artists to render it in its most authentic version.
One film that has been able to do this remarkably well, is Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006). Ashok and Ashima are first-generation immigrants to America, but everywhere they go, they carry along their lives as Bengalis from Kolkata. The way they talk, eat, love and even parent, are so characteristically Indian that it almost starts to feel like their new country is a foreigner to them, not them to the country. For the Gangulis, “each step, each acquisition, no matter how small, involves deliberation, consultation with Bengali friends” — almost as a way of reaffirming their place as part of their community. Ashima desperately clings on to the last slivers of her identity by meticulously recording in address books - the names and numbers of every Bengali she comes across in the US. This constant tussle between the traditional and modern, a need to overcome the past but also stay rooted to it, serves as a brilliant metaphor for the city itself.
Adding to this list is Piku (2015) which also successfully draws up a nuanced picture of a very intimately bound, Bengali household. By placing it in the middle of a bustling street that sees neighbours arguing with each other ; young people gathering on the patio of houses to engage in glib, “intellectual” debate ; and elderly men discussing politics and the weather at their neighbourhood grocery stores— the film immediately becomes recognisable to every Kolkata dweller. Because therein lies the understated charm of it.
This sentiment had been a staple in the works of Bengali film directors during the late 90s, most notably Satyajit Ray. The saying that “Art mirrors Society and Society mirrors Art” couldn’t possibly hold truer for Ray, who had a knack for making films that were subtle with almost a burning passion. This shines through in masterpieces such as Aparajito (1956), The Apu Trilogy (1959), Charulata (1964) and Ghare Baire (1984), to name a few. In all of his works, he provides a thorough commentary on the roles, rights, status, privileges, and even the faults and misjudgements of society at the time. His characters strive to fulfil their destiny by either being part of Leftist politics and high-art movements ; coming to terms with the relegation of their womanhood to the four walls of the home ; or actually lashing out in defiance against figures of authority and challenging their power — a trait that lent itself in large parts to even the Indian Independence Movement.
The fact is, Kolkata is more than just its buildings and its food, it is a rich history of the reclamation of everything that was rightfully ours before the British Era. The city is almost a voice, an indignant shriek, that refuses to die down until it has been retributed. And while there is no escaping this past, the city’s identity is not solely derived from it . Like every other city, Kolkata too, is as permanent as she is transient. So instead of trying to contain her within carefully curated motifs, it is probably best to let her flourish and choose her own course, whatever that may be.